Leo Varadkar has accused the opposition of spinning “fake news” over the strategic communications unit (SCU), as the Dáil attacked the PR section and its “misuse” of public money.
The Taoiseach was forced into a staunch defence of the unit during a Sinn Féin motion calling for it to be scrapped and for officials to answer questions before committees. Sinn Féin deputy Dáil leader Pearse Doherty argued that media reports dispelled a promise the communications division was free of political influence or government involvement.
This followed advertorials in newspapers directed to look like normal news for Project Ireland and an admission by an advisor to the Taoiseach the unit may be viewed as a “vanity” project for him.
The Irish Examiner also revealed this week that the unit took over answering a parliamentary question about itself for a minister.
Furthermore, it was showed how the unit was involved in a local health launch in Mr Varadkar’s constituency and how it was even roped into helping manage “public attention” over the public services card.
Some of these developments were “alarming”, said Sinn Féin’s Maurice Quinlivan, whose Dáil question on the unit’s usefulness was answered by the unit rather than the minister.
Labour’s Joan Burton also noted there had been a “cloak and dagger” feel to the paediatric event in Mr Varadkar’s constituency overseen by the unit, with “few other public representatives” there.
Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary said the parliament had yet to see the business case, facts, and figures as to how the SCU will, as the Government claims, save money.
Mr Varadkar has allocated €5m for the SCU this year and it has 15 staff. In the wake of controversy, Mr Varadkar has now ordered a review, expected to be complete in the coming weeks.
However, Mr Doherty said it was now clear from media revelations that the unit was not operating at “arm’s length”, as claimed, from the Taoiseach and the Government. The advertorial scandal, which involved promoting Fine Gael politicians, was a “misuse of the public purse”, argued the TD.
All political parties besides Fine Gael yesterday backed the motion to scrap the unit, with many claiming it had gone beyond its remit of coordinating government communication.
The Taoiseach disagreed, telling the Dáil that communications from different departments was sometimes “fragmented”, with “too many cooks”. The public was not served with multiple brands or communications, he insisted.
“The SCU does not run any of my Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram accounts. It does not record or promote my weekly video or decide what I wear. It has minimal input into my speeches, press releases, and preparation for interviews.”
He also defended civil servants training by the SCU.
Earlier, speaking in Berlin, Mr Varadkar attacked the opposition over its scrutiny of the SCU.
“I think the opposition have been very successful in their spin, in their fake news, in trying to make out that what is a civil service unit is some sort of political unit. It’s not,” he said.
Mr Varadkar is expected to be quizzed about the SCU along with department staff when he appears before the finance committee later this month.
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